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The printed collections of The New York Public Library could be said to begin in the Rare Book Division, with nearly 800 pieces of incunabula, ranging from the 1460 Catholicon to Schedel's Liber Chronicarum, and including De Bury's Philobiblon, Breydenbach's Peregrinatio in Terram sanctam, Holle's 1482 printing of Ptolemy's Cosmographia, and a number of editions of Sacro Bosco's Sphaera mundi. Works printed by Peter Schöffer, William Caxton, Günter Zainer, and Anton Koberger are represented, as are block books, indulgences, and even several examples of Asian printing, which predate the incunabular period.
The Rare Book Division is rich in Americana, especially books printed in the Americas before 1801. The holdings of European Americana are mostly from the earlier period, up to 1600. The collection of broadsides—of which there are approximately 20,000—contains many items of American interest. The division also holds American newspapers printed before 1865.
One of the most important collecting areas of the division is voyages and travels; among the division's holdings in this area are editions of De Bry, Hakluyt, Hulsius, John Smith, James Cook, Lewis and Clark, George Catlin, and Wied-Neuwied. Additionally, there are many early atlases, beginning with the 1478 Cosmographia, and including several by Ortelius, Georg Braun, and Münster.
Bibles were an important part of the Lenox Library; when that institution became one of the founding collections of The New York Public Library, the Rare Book Division became home to many of the Lenox's rare Bibles. Foremost among these is the Gutenberg Bible, the Lenox copy of which was the first to come to America. The division also possesses Luther's translation of the Bible, as well as Tyndale's. There is also the first Bible printed in a native American language, the first Bible printed in the United States, and a Bible that belonged to the last surviving mutineer of the H.M.S. Bounty.
Among literary works, the division possesses the first four Folio editions of the works of William Shakespeare, all pre-1700 editions of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and the complete works of Voltaire in their original editions. The Rosin Collection of German Literature is filled with first editions of Goethe, Schiller, Heine, and their contemporaries. The Oscar Lion Collection of Walt Whitman contains not only works by and about Whitman, but also Whitman's personal copies of the first (1855) and third (1860) editions of Leaves of Grass. Other collections worth noting would be the O'Brien Collection of Dime Novels, Richard Watson Gilder's collection of 19th-century poetry, the Darton and Schatzki Collections of children's books, and the Stuart Collection.
Finally, some mention must be made of some of the division's notable rarities. These items include the only remaining copy of the first printing of Columbus's letter to Luis de Santángel (Barcelona, 1493), the first book printed in North America (1543), the first book printed in English in America (1640), the earliest surviving globe from the period immediately following the discovery of the Americas (ca. 1510), and the first printings of the Declaration of Independence.